Before the little girl went outside into the cold, her mom buttoned up the Minnie Mouse coat she was wearing, reached into the 4-year-old’s pocket to put on her gloves and instead pulled out a picture of a 21-year-old woman.
“Did you put this in your coat?” the mom asked her daughter.
“Yes, Mommy,” the girl answered. “I wanted to remember the girl who gave it to me,” Lisa Miller recalled.
It’s those kind of memories that remind Lisa Miller that a coat can make a difference in a child’s life.
The girl in the photograph was Lisa’s daughter Courtney, a former Ohio State student who died in a 2013 spring break car crash. Another OSU student, Brittney Gallagher, was also killed in the accident.
Courtney was just seven weeks away from graduating with honors, Lisa Miller said.
“Our lives stopped on that day,” Lisa Miller said while choking back tears. “I still most days don’t believe that she’s gone. The only thing I’ve gotten used to is living with the pain.”
But more than a year after her death, Courtney Miller is still warming hearts — hearts like that 4-year-old girl’s — through Courtney’s Coats for Kids.
Courtney’s Coats for Kids is a nonprofit organization that raises money to buy coats, hats and gloves for underprivileged children in Courtney’s hometown of Niles, Ohio. The nonprofit is now entering its second season of operation.
Lisa Miller started the organization in fall 2013 — about six months after Courtney Miller’s death — in honor of her daughter.
Lisa Miller said Courtney Miller was going to be a teacher. She would often call her mom crying about children she’d met in the classroom who didn’t have basic necessities or even simple things like proper clothing or pencils.
When Courtney Miller died, Lisa Miller said their family received a lot of money, so she opened up a fund in her daughter’s name. Lisa Miller said she thought a lot about what to do with that money.
It was when she was sitting in the cemetery — thinking about conversations she’d had with her daughter — that Lisa Miller thought of the idea for Courtney’s Coats for Kids.
“I wanted to make it as special as Courtney was,” Lisa Miller said.
And Lisa Miller does everything she can to make it special. She makes sure each coat is hand picked for every child. Lisa Miller sends a letter home to the parents asking for the child’s three favorite characters or sports as well as their three favorite colors.
“They’re picked with love and they’re picked with thought,” Lisa Miller said. “If a little girl wants a Disney ‘Frozen’ coat, we do our best to get her a Disney ‘Frozen’ coat.”
To determine the children who are in the greatest need of coats, Lisa Miller sends letters to teachers asking them to choose the children they feel most need a coat. Lisa then sends letters home to the parents explaining Courtney’s Coats for Kids.
Once purchased, Lisa Miller has someone sew a heart once doodled by Courtney Miller into each and every coat. She also includes a notecard with a picture of Courtney Miller and the organization’s logo.
“We make it a present for the children,” Lisa said. “I had a teacher tell me the kids come in so excited saying, ‘I have a Courtney’s Coat! I have a Courtney’s Coat!’”
Donna Shields, educational coordinator at Trumbull Community Action Program Head Start, said it’s an emotional experience for all involved.
“It’s so amazing. It made me cry last year,” Shields said. “(The families) were so touched when they received the coats. Everything matched and it was perfect.”
Last year, Courtney’s Coats for Kids bought and donated 39 coats to the Niles community.
Only halfway into the fall season this year, Courtney’s Coats for Kids has already bought 60 coats that are ready to be distributed, Lisa Miller said. Lisa Miller’s goal is to buy a total of 148 coats this year.
Each coat costs about $50, and the money for each coat is raised through fundraising efforts, Lisa Miller’s friend Vickie Glass said.
Glass is helping organize a fundraising auction to be held Nov. 1 and said the support from the community has been overwhelming.
“Everyone that we have contacted has just been so receptive. Everyone,” Glass said. “Just when we think everything is done, another fantastic auction item comes. We keep saying there’s an angel on our shoulder because it’s just been amazing.”
And the support from the community is obvious to Lisa Miller, too.
“I was so unsure about (the program) at first but when I started to hear the stories about how a nice, new warm coat could affect a child’s life, I knew this is exactly what we should be doing to honor Courtney,” Lisa said. “A coat does make a difference.”
Lisa said she hopes the program continues for years, saying, “We want to keep as many children warm as we can.”
While Courtney’s Coats for Kids has already made a difference for many children and their parents, it also means a lot for Courtney’s family, Lisa Miller said.
“As her mom, I took care of Courtney her whole life. When she passed away, it left a void. No more taking care of her, no more visits, no more grocery shopping, no more going down and doing her laundry,” Lisa Miller said. “Courtney’s Coats is my way of still taking care of her.”